There are few reality TV programs that occupy a more central place in my heart than the visual comfort food that is The Great British Bake Off.
Now six seasons into its wildly successful run, the series affectionately abbreviated as GBBO and Bake Off dispatches 12 amateur bakers to a tent in the beautiful English countryside. Every week, they're faced with a new series of elaborate baking challenges. The show is whimsical but intelligent, irreverent but wholesome: a guilty pleasure without the guilt. The contestants themselves are, as a rule, charming, self-deprecating, and frighteningly competent.
In every way, The Great British Bake Off feels as fundamentally British as its title suggests. But now, for a second time—after CBS's The American Baking Competition fizzled in 2013—U.S. television is trying its best to recreate that magic. Over the next four weeks, six of America's "best amateur bakers" will compete on The Great Holiday Baking Show on ABC (by which, full disclosure, Fusion is partly owned). Unfortunately, it appears that one country's reality show treasure may be another country's reality show trash.
GBBO is judged by Mary Berry, a household name in the UK, and Paul Hollywood, who represents the closest thing the show has to a bad cop. The Holiday Baking Show has imported Mary, but not Paul, and paired her with Johnny Iuzzini of Top Chef: Just Desserts.
The Great Holiday Baking Show is hosted by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Cougar Town actor Ian Gomez. This married couple seems like an utterly random choice for the program—even Vardalos has said she was "certainly surprised" when they were approached about the job. But overall, they do just fine. Some of the banter falls flat in the premiere episode, but Vardalos does get in a solid punchline likening her uneven breasts to a lopsided gingerbread house.
That said, Gomez and Vardalos are several tiers—tiers decorated with delicately piped roses, but still—below their British counterparts, who are about as good at their jobs as a person can be. Bake Off is presented by Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, two infectiously delightful comedians who are as empathetic as they are quick-witted and absolutely filthy.
As I see it, there are two primary problems with The Great Holiday Baking Show, the less critical of which is an aesthetic one. ABC has made such an effort to replicate the original that the small differences become all the more glaring, like an uncanny valley of set design. The music and interstitial graphics are largely identical, but the proportions of the judges' table are wrong, I find myself grumbling to no one in particular. This floor is a different color. The tent's walls should have vertical paneling, not this inexplicably chintzier horizontal garbage.
I know these may sound like insane points to quibble with, but if you're a Bake Off fan, you'll understand where I'm coming from. GBBO feels dreamy and idyllic, with every detail fussed over—that's a large part of its escapist appeal. For reasons I can't entirely put my finger on, the conspicuously Christmas-themed American series is utterly drab by comparison.
But the far more insidious issue is one that deals with the very soul of The Great Holiday Baking Show. Much has been made of how "nice" The Great British Bake Off is—which is fair, in that there's very little in the way of squabbling, insults, or sabotage. Preserving this niceness has seemingly been key to the American rebranding. "We’re not looking to make anybody feel bad or to cry," Iunizzi recently told EW.
Be careful what you wish for: Laboratory-grown, deliberate earnestness is anathema to actual earnestness, as demonstrated by Iuzzini himself in the first episode. When the judges critique a baker's gingerbread model of the Eiffel Tower, Iuzzini grabs Berry's hand. "Mary, if you weren't already married, this would definitely put me in the mood to propose," he purrs. Chill, dude. That's not sincerity; that's smarm.
I don't think it's most important that Paul and Mary are "nice," but that they're respectful and genuine—Bake Off is well aware that no one will hold its talented, humble, and often neurotic bakers to a higher standard than they will themselves.
In the United States, food-based reality show contestants typically compete for a cash prize, their own cookbook, or maybe even their own restaurant. Meanwhile, the Bake Off champion takes home an engraved cake plate. While previous winners have indeed gone on to enjoy culinary careers, that never feels like the point. Watching Bake Off, I'm not sure the proceedings would go any differently if the cameras weren't there. The contestants truly love baking and take a tremendous amount of pride in their work—the kind of pride that isn't loud and blustering, but focused and self-aware.
The American contestants are likable, sure, but they feel a little like stock reality show personalities to me—boisterous Staten Island native Grace borrows Yogi Berra's "it ain't over till it's over" line, and self-described "country girl" Nicole prays before starting her bake.
Perhaps it's too early to tell, but the group as a whole seems to lack the finesse of GGBO contestants, who churn out florentines and Swiss rolls and Baked Alaskas with relatively little fuss. Grace's gingerbread hospital in particular seems awfully janky for something she presumably practiced in advance. The population of the United States is nearly five times that of the United Kingdom, and you mean to tell me that these are the best bakers we've got?
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.